This post comes from Elizabeth Smith, perhaps one of the IRWP’s greatest advocates and most involved volunteers.  Elizabeth is a 5th grade teacher at Russell D. Jones Elementary in Rogers, and she is the 2014 recipient of the IRWP’s Golden Paddle Award in Education.  Find out more about Elizabeth’s involvement with the IRWP in the post below.


As everyone knows so well, this is the season for giving, and there is no greater gift to give than that of yourself.

I have delightfully discovered through experiences at the IRWP that finding what to give is absolutely no problem at all.  Can’t think of anything?  Just show up at the door to the IRWP’s Watershed Learning Center and the IRWP staff will wrap you up in an arm and a smile and lead you off to discover just exactly what talents you have that you never knew you possessed.  They’ll have you planting trees, watering rain gardens, building vegetable beds, cleaning lake bottoms, tearing down invasive vines, clearing trails, painting, or any number of other jobs that need your talents!

Now, how do I know this?  Well, I’m a 100% totally dedicated, recruited, immersed-in-the-environment volunteer myself, and I am enjoying every minute of volunteering with the IRWP!

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Delia Haak, Lauren Ray, and Elizabeth Smith at the end of the IRWP’s Grand Opening in November.

I was first drawn to the Illinois River Watershed Partnership and its programs through my position as an elementary school teacher.  I teach 5th grade and have always had a love for science, so my students get a healthy dose of environmental education each year.  In my efforts to incorporate a community-based project for the children to participate in, I discovered the IRWP and its Watershed Sanctuary in Cave Springs.

Here was a beautiful location near our school where the children could visit on their own and bring their families later.  My 5th graders loved hiking the trails, seeing Cave Springs Cave, learning about the natural and chronological history of the area, and inviting Miss Lauren to come to our class to demonstrate how a watershed works.

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 Elizabeth and her students do a language arts activity during a field program at the Watershed Sanctuary.

After visiting the Watershed Sanctuary, those kids were listening to the Clean Water Raingers music, tapping their toes and deciding to save the world, one waterbody at a time! With a little bit of encouragement and guidance, they were interviewing  Cave Springs residents and designing a kid-friendly brochure about Partners  Lake.

It was our hope that more schools and children could learn about the Illinois River Watershed through our brochure and help preserve its beauty.  The students were motivated beyond belief!  Here was a way that 10 year olds could be heard on a valid, local environmental issue.  They were so motivated by their research and writing that their Benchmark scores in literature out-scored the entire state of Arkansas! What it proved to me was that volunteerism and project-based learning was an exciting way to integrate academics with real life needs.

Now, that was just the start of my relationship with the IRWP.  The gift of giving was beginning to take a firm hold in my mind, and without even wondering, “What next?” I got swooped up into another project.  While all the brochure making was going on, I had encouraged my students to participate in the children’s art exhibit put on by the IRWP with their Artist in Residence, John Lasater.  Earlier in the year, I had entered the adult juried art show, The Illinois River Salon, and had a piece accepted. This was a thrilling experience because not only was it the very first acrylic painting I had ever done, it was also an exciting way to advertise what the IRWP was trying to protect and preserve.

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Elizabeth and her mother, Anne Moller, with one of Elizabeth’s paintings in the 2014 Illinois River Salon.

“A picture says a thousand words,” as we’ve all heard, and the words spoken by the Illinois River Salon artists could have filled volumes!  Each painting spoke of the beauty of countless areas within the watershed.  I was volunteering through my artwork to spread the news of watershed stewardship, and I didn’t even know I was working!  It was too much fun to call “work”!

Now, that wasn’t quite enough volunteering  for me yet because the IRWP staff could see I was deeply addicted to the conservation principles they were advocating, so before I knew it, I was volunteering for the IRWP Education Committee, and that overlapped into the Historic Preservation Committee because of all the research my students were doing. What’s more, my grandchildren lived in Cave Springs, so naturally I wanted to help restore the Watershed Sanctuary. I started planting trees, cleaning the lake bottom, clearing brush, and I really wanted to paint some more so I entered the Illinois River Salon art contest again, and… and… and… and…. I just couldn’t stop volunteering!

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Elizabeth and her granddaughter volunteered in November 2013 to clean up the lake bed at the Watershed Sanctuary.

Each day I showed up to volunteer, everyone at the IRWP welcomed me with smiles and gratitude.  Working with them left me energized and excited to do more, even after a full day of teaching.  I wanted to keep going back to do more, not only because I could see it made a difference to others, but because I could feel it made a difference in me, too. The world was just a brighter place to be in seeing the Watershed Sanctuary grow and change, knowing I had helped contribute to it.

So now, I’m extending the opportunity of giving as a volunteer to you… take a moment in the hustle and bustle of your day to give the IRWP a call or just walk up to the door of the Watershed Learning Center.  You’re sure to receive a warm welcome.  Just say, “Show me what I can do today.”  I guarantee, there’s a world of good you can do, and a world of good will come back to you for doing it! Give the gift of yourself to preserve our watershed’s beauty and start right here at the IRWP.